Cargo Theft Numbers Spike Again After One-Year Lull

Just when it looked like the supply chain was returning to a normal degree of fraud and thievery, a surge in cargo thefts in the final quarter of 2022 pushed full-year totals past the numbers seen even during the peak of a COVID-19 pandemic crime spree.

CargoNet, a division of Verisk, tracked 1,778 “supply chain risk incidents” in 2022, compared to 1,285 in 2021. Both numbers are preliminary because CargoNet continues to receive delayed theft reports after publishing year-end totals, but the data still provides a useful indication of the supply chain crime rate, said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations.

The total loss value was $223.1 million in 2022, up from $57.9 million in the prior year, according to CargoNet’s report. The average loss was valued at $214,104, compared to $172,340 in the prior year.

“We were starting to normalize and go back to pre-COVID data, but then all of a sudden the last quarter kicks in and things go crazy with thefts,” Lewis said.

The thieves have also changed focus on what they steal. During the pandemic, railcar break-ins in Southern California that targeted consumer electronics products made headlines. In 2022, losses of electronics dropped 37% but thefts of household goods jumped 13%. Thefts of food and beverages —the third most targeted commodity — also increased 42%, but the number of incidents was still slightly lower than in 2020.

“Food is always going to be up there,” Lewis said. “When times are tough people stop buying electronics and they start focusing on what they need.”

Lewis said CargoNet typically receives reports of 1,100 to 1,200 risk incidents per year. That includes thefts, fictitious pickups, pilferage and broken cargo seals.

The number of incident reports jumped to 1,676 in 2020 and the average loss value increased to $166,334. The dip in the number of incidents in 2021 turned out to be short lived.

Cargo stolen through deceptive tactics, such as using a legitimate motor carrier to pick up loads and misdirect the shipment from the intended delivery address, jumped 600% in 2022, with 74% of those incidents occurring in California, the CargoNet report says. Shipments of solar panels, auto parts, and vehicle maintenance products like engine oil were diverted.

Lewis, who retired from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s cargo theft task force in 2010, said about a half dozen “very organized” criminal groups are probably behind most of the fictitious pickups.

The 2020 report includes a tidbit from Lewis’ old stomping grounds. Cargo thefts in Georgia increased 34% in 2022, in part because organized crime groups took advantage of increased traffic to the Port of Savannah. Gov. Brian Kemp shut down a taskforce assigned to cargo theft investigations in 2020, Lewis said.

Lewis said he is not criticizing Kemp’s choice of priorities. He said the state is now focusing more resources toward violent crime.

In California, law enforcement made some progress in combatting cargo theft. In November, the Los Angeles Police Department announced the arrest of 91 people suspected of train cargo burglaries. Police recovered stolen merchandise worth $18 million and also found drugs and automatic weapons where the goods were stored.

In August, an investigation by the California Highway Patrol’s Cargo Theft Interdiction Program led to the arrest of five people suspected of being involved with a San Francisco Bay Area “large-scale cargo theft operation.” Investigators recovered $250,000 in cash and stolen goods worth $1 million, the CHP said.

Other criminals will likely fill the void created by those arrests.

“The way the bad guy world works is, one will get caught and two or more will start up,” said Lewis.

Top photo: Money seized during the arrest of five people suspected of participating in a cargo theft operation in the San Francisco Bay area is displayed in this photo by the California Highway Patrol.